“As a kid I worked here off and on through school and college and had the opportunity to really grow up in the business,” Rebecca Kaplan tells me in her office as construction crews bang on metal scaffolding in the lobby of Glazer’s Camera. “This was all before digital occurred, so photographers would come in the morning, pick up film, maybe drop it off next door midday to do some tests, and there was just this huge community vibe.”
Kaplan and her brother Ari Lackman, co-owners of Glazer’s, are the third generation running the beloved family-owned Seattle camera store, opened in 1935 on First Avenue by their grandfather Ed Glazer. Kaplan remembers when her dad, a forward-thinking man named Bob Lackman, decided to move the store from its 500-square-foot space in downtown to a 5,000-square-foot space in South Lake Union in the mid-’80s. Lackman was drawn to the area by Ivey, the commercial photo lab that, along with Glazer’s, would form a small photo district in the neighborhood. “My dad just started thinking about growth and the future, especially when autofocus became commercially available. I remember thinking as a kid that the new space was so big, we’d never fill it,” Kaplan says, sitting in the business’s two-month-old, 14,000-square-foot store.
Back in the ’80s, photographers in general were a much more social breed. Glazer’s customers, waiting for their film to get developed, would gather at a deli called Slices, “which, back then, if you can believe it, was the only place to eat in South Lake Union,” Kaplan laughs. “People got coffee and shared and talked about how each other’s lives were. Now with digital, everyone’s so isolated, it’s really changed everything. Photographers don’t have to talk to anyone, they can do all their work at home.”
In a way, by the very nature of its industry, Glazer’s Camera has always had to reckon with technology, much like the neighborhood around it. Few fields have been more radically changed by the shift to digital than photography. Film, once synonymous with the medium, has become a niche for older diehards and young curious photographers chasing a certain aesthetic. “We’re this very technology-driven company, but there’s also this nostalgia for the past of the art form and the tools,” Kaplan says.
Part of Glazer’s staying power in booming, tech-centric South Lake Union has been its dedication to investing in that technology, while still maintaining stock that caters to those film-based clients. “They’re not trends,” Kaplan says. “The pro community kind of balked, ‘I’m never going to give up film!’ But something I’ve always admired about my dad was how he was never foolish—he strategically invested in new innovations but kept the focus on photography and the core elements surrounding it. He didn’t start selling cell phones or service plans or TVs like other camera shops that closed down did.”
In the early ’90s, when digital cameras first came onto the market, Glazer’s wholeheartedly embraced them—opening a “Glazer’s Digital” across the street staffed with pros versed in the new technology. When digital inevitably became the standard, Glazer’s moved its digital stock into its main business. That said, the arrival of digital—both in the photography field and the booming tech industry surrounding the store for the past six years—hasn’t been a squeaky-clean transition for Glazer’s.
“We’re in the crossroads of the Bertha Project, the Mercer Project, and all of these tech buildings going up,” Kaplan says. “Customers and staff are always saying, ‘I took a totally new route here today, because the streets were all under construction.’ Combine that with online commerce, and it’s really forced us to get diligent about what we can do to keep drawing people here; we’re a really destination-based business, so we’ve had lots of fits and stops.”
When Wolff, a family-owned development firm, bought a large chunk of the block Glazer’s was on to build apartments and new retail in 2013, Glazer’s went into talks on what its new building, rebuilt in the same spot on Republican at the base of the apartment building, would look like. Beyond the underground parking and guaranteed block of load-zone parking—crucial in their congested location—Glazer’s decided to build a “tech” classroom and community space onsite for its photo and film classes, which they’ve been diligently marketing to neighborhood newcomers working at all the new corporate campuses. “Something that’s really been on our mind is how to create learning opportunities for them to come in on their lunch breaks,” Kaplan says, “because if you’ve ever seen the Amazon … release for lunch, it’s really quite something to behold.”
Now that Vulcan owns its old shuttered location just across the street, and Glazer’s’ shiny new headquarters is set to make its grand opening this Thursday, Kaplan says she’s optimistic about the future of her business. “We decided that while the construction on the new space would be a disruption for the two years it was being built, ultimately we’d have this great new building for our kids,” Kaplan says. “There’s this sort of forward-looking nostalgia in that, I guess—that’s always been how our business has gone. I’d love if some more local businesses moved down here, though—it gets a little lonely sometimes.”